EXCITING BRAHMS BY TETZLAFF
By Lawrence Budmen
The great Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) was one of the closest friends of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). Himself a composer, Joachim was an important artistic influence on Brahms. The two men often performed and concretized together. The culmination of their special relationship was Brahms's "Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra," Opus 77 (1879) - a score that was not only tailored to Joachim's virtuoso talents but was composed with his advice and counsel. Long a pillar of the violin-orchestral repertoire, the Brahms Violin Concerto received a uniquely illuminating performance by the superbly gifted German violinist Christian Tetzlaff with the New World Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas on October 16 at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach, Florida, USA.
Tetzlaff is one of the most fascinating artists on the world's concert scene. He possesses a distinctive sound and artistic personality. His tone is not large in the Russian violinistic sense; yet the pure, glistening quality of his playing and his natural, thoughtfully conceived shaping of every note and phrase is the mark of a great artist! The fiery manner in which he attacked the opening Allegro non troppo held the audience spellbound. There was elegance in his shaping of the gorgeous second subject. For once the Joachim cadenza emerged not as a flashy display but as a fluid, coherent moment in a larger musical statement. The supple, deeply eloquent phrasing that Tetzlaff brought to the Adagio was the hallmark of artistry on the most rarified level! With a beautifully articulated oboe solo by Karen Burch (which Tilson Thomas dovetailed to Tetzlaff's every musical inflection), this slow movement was the essence of soaring lyricism. Tetzlaff's rapid fire, dazzling bravura version of the concluding Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace was pure Hungarian fireworks. Rarely has the relationship between this music and Brahms's "Hungarian Dances" been so clear. The extended arc of Brahms's musical structure was paramount - not a series of episodic vignettes. Tetzlaff has the ability to investigate the music's inner flame - reinventing the score along the way. A blazing performance by an artist of rare insight and musicianship!
Long noted as an eloquent interpreter of Tchaikovsky and Mahler, Tilson Thomas is also a protean Brahmsian. His passionate, caressing performance of Brahms's Third Symphony two seasons ago was memorable. His grandly spacious readings of the First and Fourth Symphonies cut to the essence of the Central European conducting tradition. From the first bars of the Violin Concerto the dark, subtly colored tones of the violas, cellos, and basses captured that uniquely burnished Brahms sonority. Tempos and accents were expertly judged. The sheer beauty and romantic ardor of the music were powerfully realized. Tetzlaff and Tilson Thomas literally breathed the music's glowing aura together. A superbly idiomatic collaboration between a virtuoso conductor and a stellar soloist!
Tetzlaff has achieved renown as an interpreter of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. As an encore he offered the Gigue from Bach's solo "Violin Partita No.4." The clarity, grace, and imagination of Tetzlaff's playing were astonishing! The thoughtfully, intellectually rigorous yet always humane qualities that Tetzlaff brings to this repertoire has set new artistic standards. Bach playing of such deeply felt emotion, dedication, and elegance has not been heard since the superb performances of the late Henryk Szering. Tetzlaff was rewarded by repeated standing ovations.
The American composer Peter Lieberson (1946- ) is a practicing Buddhist. Buddhist thought permeates many of his scores. The 1986 mini-symphony "Drala" (composed for Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra) marked a turning point for the composer. Like many composers of his generation Lieberson had been trained by teachers who championed the atonal doctrine of Arnold Schoenberg. His early works (including the highly successful Piano Concerto written for Peter Serkin) were reverential to that idiom. With "Drala" Lieberson abandoned serialism to embrace the entire spectrum of compositional techniques. As an orchestrator, Lieberson's gifts are of the spectacular variety! (Lieberson is the son of the legendary recording producer and executive Goddard Lieberson and the actress-ballerina Vera Zorina. He is married to the renowned and widely versatile mezzo-soprano Loraine Hunt Lieberson.)
"Drala" (a meditation piece) is a lushly conceived soundscape. In the opening Invocation, figurations of woodwinds, harp, piano, and percussion lead to a series of ravishing, spacious chords in the strings - a depiction of a solemn Buddhist procession. The percussive Gathering movement features harsh sounds from the brass - a kind of wild celebration. The tranquil calm of the third movement "Offerings and Praises" comes as a striking contrast. A darkly ruminative cello solo forms the main thematic material of the movement. This daunting, darkly astringent music was played in a superlative manner by cellist Marilyn De Olivera (a graduate of Indiana and Rice Universities). Her beautiful, rich tone and innate musicality captured the music's prayerful gravity. This central movement - the heart of Lieberson's score - concludes with a modern day Bach chorale in the winds and a restatement of the stately, sonorous string chords from the opening procession. The score's finale - "Raising Windhorse" - is indeed a wild ride. Driving counter rhythms and combustible energy seem to explode in the entire orchestra. The influence of Stravinsky's "Le Sacre de Printemps" is evident in the unrelenting rhythmic thrust and brilliant orchestration. Certainly Lieberson has written a virtuosic orchestral showpiece with some lovely, moving moments of repose.
Ever the fervent advocate of contemporary music Tilson Thomas led a highly charged account of Lieberson's daunting score. The gorgeous string playing in the processional episodes was staggering. The kinetic energy of the "Raising Windhorse" finale was a dazzling display of orchestral brilliance. The dynamic playing of the large percussion contingent was a standout. Tilson Thomas's relentless, high energy conducting gave Lieberson's score a Technicolor interpretation. The New World Symphony players covered themselves with glory!
On October 9, Daria Rabotkina (a native of Kazan, Russia and a pupil of Vladimir Feltsman at New York's Mannes College of Music) joined Tilson Thomas and the NWS to perform that perennial warhorse - the "Concerto No.1 in B-flat Minor," Opus 23 by Tchaikovsky. Rabotkina is a sensitive, interpretively adventurous artist. Her lovely tone and delicately sculptured phrasing in the second movement Andante semplice were magical! The movement had the dreamy, almost improvisatory aura of an arabesque. Rabotkina brought refreshing restraint and imaginative, often poetic musical shape to the thrice familiar Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso. She had the requisite virtuosity for the concluding Allegro con fuoco. Her Chopinesque touch brought elegance to the movement's lovely second subject. For all her artistry and pianistic command, Rabotkina too often failed to encompass the concerto's grand line. Her performance was often episodic and lacked the aristocratic sweep inherent in the music. (Rabotkina will be touring with Valery Gergiev and St. Petersburg's Kirov Orchestra in March. Perhaps her Prokofiev - the First Concerto - will display her talents to better advantage at that time). Tilson Thomas brought lush, rhapsodic grandeur to the concerto's orchestral writing. His tempos were admirably unhurried - allowing the music to soar with almost operatic passion. Aside from some frayed wind intonation, the orchestra played with rich, sonorous beauty.
The Tchaikovsky was preceded by a brilliant, dizzying performance of Shostakovich's "Symphony No.9 in E-flat Major," Opus 70. Yevgeny Mravinsky, who led the November, 1945 premiere with the Leningrad Philharmonic, noted that the symphony was "a work directed against philistinism…an original 'symphonic broadside' which ridicules complacency and bombast." Beneath the music's seemingly joyous swagger lies a dark side. At times elements of tragedy and the grotesque seem to intrude upon the music. Tilson Thomas encompassed the score's ambivalent emotional context. A taut, furious pace and light, feathery string playing opened the satiric first movement Allegro. Tilson Thomas evoked the pensive, tragic tone of the Moderato - so reminiscent of the slow movements in Shostakovich's wartime Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. The crystalline flute tones of Ebonee Thomas (a graduate of Southern Methodist University and Boston's New England Conservatory) commanded attention among fine, precise wind playing. Taken at a rapid clip, the sardonic humor of the Scherzo Presto made a splendid effect. The dramatic brass chords that introduce the Largo were at once frightening and sonorous. The movement is dominated by a long bassoon solo based upon Russian Orthodox chants and Jewish motifs - a typically Shostakovich mix of ritual and klezmer. The rich tone and strong accents of Gabriel Beavers's solo bassoon were striking. Tilson Thomas found the sly wit of the concluding Allegretto. Orchestral timbres were bright and piercing. The concluding brass fanfare had tremendous impact. A crisp, rousing performance of a 20th century classic!
Michael Tilson Thomas's fall residency with the New World Symphony found him at the height of his conducting powers. His music making was consistently imaginative and provocative. Tilson Thomas's collaboration with Christian Tetzlaff produced a Brahms Concerto performance of the legendary variety - a great interpretation of a timeless masterpiece!